The awful five-day ordeal endured by Limerick man Michael Ryan and nineteen other (Greek) sailors before reaching sanctuary on the Kerry coast, by Con McGrath
HOLLOW-EYED and exhausted after one of the most awful ordeals in the annals of the sea—in peace or in war—twenty seamen staggered ashore from a boat at the little fishing village of Portmagee, on the coast of Kerry, on Thursday, at 2.30 pm, on February 1st, 1940.
The story they had to tell to those who rushed to succour them was terrible in its ghastliness.
They were the survivors of a crew of 33 men belonging to the Greek trading vessel ‘Elini Stitathos’ (9,000 tons). This ship had discharged its cargo of grain and corn at Plymouth and Sharkness and was on its way across the Atlantic under ballast, to Key West, Florida, to pick up another cargo for Manchester and Liverpool. Suddenly, at 4 o’clock on Sunday morning, 200 miles south west of the Scilly Islands, the crew saw a submarine rise to the surface, a short distance from the ship. Without warning the submarine discharged two torpedoes broadside into her.
No one had perished in the explosion. Their fate was to be more dreadful.
Huddled together in a single lifeboat, without proper food or clothing, watching the spread of insanity and death amongst their comrades day after day, they had to suffer on three different occasions the sight of a ship that might mean rescue, instead sail away ignoring their signals.
One by one, as the long weary days passed and no rescue ships appeared, thirteen men died of exposure . . . three within sight of the Irish coast.
Of the crew, 32 were Greeks—the other was Michael Ryan, of Tullabracky, near Bruff, Co. Limerick, who described his ordeal as “a nightmare experience, too frightful to think about.”
Fortunately the “nightmare” came to an end when the lifeboat survivors were rescued by Michael Casey, one of the famous Sneem family of athletes.
An Irish Press Correspondent would afterwards report:
At Valentia Point, I interviewed 34-year-old fisherman Michael Casey, who rescued the 20 survivors.
“About 1.30 yesterday afternoon,” he said, “I was standing at the door of my own house on the seafront when I saw a lifeboat drifting about in the bay, three or four miles out. I quickly got seven other fishermen together and we raced out in my fisher-yawl, which is motor-driven, and towed the lifeboat into Portmagee. All its occupants were exhausted, lying about in heaps on the bottom. They had to be carried up to the village.”
Another man on the rescue scene, Maurice Murphy, hotelier, told the same correspondent that when the sailors were brought to his hotel they could not walk and had to be lifted into the house. They were more like scarecrows than human beings. They could not be given any food at first, as they were too weak.
‘Fourteen of the 20 survivors are confined to bed in hotels and houses, in Caherciveen’, reported the Irish Press on February 3rd, 1940. ‘Special arrangements for the treatment of the crew have been made by Mr. P. C. O’Mahony, Secretary, Kerry Board of Health.’
In this news report which made the front page, the paper added:
‘Mr. M. McNamara, Secretary, Irish Red Cross Society, informed an IRISH PRESS representative yesterday that the Society has been in communication with the Gardai in Cahirciveen and had promised to give any help that might be required for the survivors.’
‘Dr. Denis Healy, Medical Officer of Health, told me that they are chiefly suffering from frost-bite, exposure and general exhaustion, for a few days they would suffer agonies, but they would recover after a few weeks. The six in hospital were injured, but none of them was in any immediate danger.’